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Last Updated: Monday, 29 August 2005, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Misery of India's child sari weavers

By Sunil Raman
BBC News, Tamil Nadu

Child weaver Divya
Divya has been a weaver for three years now
Ten-year-old Divya sits in a low-roofed hut hunched over a six feet high and six feet wide pit loom.

A small, grilled window is the only source of fresh air.

A fluorescent tube above lights what is otherwise a dark and dingy hut. It is midday but Divya has no time to rest.

She has to ensure that the threads are ready for the weaver to make an intricate design on a green silk sari.

"I have been working for the last three years. Earlier I earned 150 rupees (around $3) a month. In the last one year my new employer is paying 200 rupees (over $4) a month," said Divya.

"I do not want to do this. I want to go to school but my parents have borrowed 5000 rupees ($111) from the loom owner. I have to work."

Bonded labourers

Divya's parents are masons. Driven by poverty they borrowed money from a loom owner and in return started sending their daughter to work on his loom.

Yuvraj
Yuvraj, 10, released from bondage by a charity, is now going to school

She has been working for three years. But the loan and its interest never get repaid. Poor and illiterate weavers remain at the mercy of employers.

Social Action Movement (SAM) - a charity based in Kanchipuram - is working to eradicate child labour.

"It is claimed that children are employed because of their nimble fingers. That is not true. They are being exploited and paid very low wages. They are bonded labourers," T Raj, project co-ordinator of SAM, told the BBC.

Divya is not alone.

It is estimated that there are around 10,000 children in the districts of Kanchipuram and Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu work in the silk industry.

There are over 100,000 looms set up in individual homes on which these famous silk saris are woven. Many of these saris cost several thousand rupees.

Yuvraj
Yuvraj shows how he used a spindle before he left the loom - 'I hated it'

These looms are located in individual households and most of them employ at least one child.

These children work every day of the week for up to 10 hours a day. They get no weekly holiday.

They all wait for the spring festival, Pongal, in January when they get a holiday.

Poster campaign

Savarnam, an owner of two looms rejected all accusations of exploitation. Instead he said that they were helping these poor people by giving them employment.

What could I do? We are very poor and needed that money. Their earnings helped us with our expenditure
Kadiamal, a local weaver
"We make hardly any profit. The cost of raw material is high. Added to that we face competition from cheap copies of Kanchipuram saris," he argued.

There are plenty of laws in India to protect small children.

Until a few years ago, loom owners would often have a few looms under one roof.

But then charities working to end child labour and government agencies began random checks and tried to spread awareness of the issue through a poster campaign.

It was then that owners started leasing out looms to individual families and providing them with the raw material to weave saris.

INDIAN LAWS ON CHILD LABOUR
Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986
Child (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933
Bonded Labour System Abolition Act of 1976
Tamil Nadu Handloom Workers Act of 1981

Kadiamal, 36, has a loom installed in her small hut. Grinding poverty forced her to send two of her children, Lakshmi and Yuvraj, to work on somebody else's loom.

A few weeks ago, activists from SAM managed to get them freed after helping their family repay part of the loan.

"I am happy that they are going to school now. What could I do? We are very poor and needed that money. Their earnings helped us with our expenditure", said Kadiamal as she got ready to resume her work.

Her son, Yuvraj looked happy playing with other children under the hot sun. "I hated it," he said.

SAM's Raj said that children who are freed from such work are sent to schools. Some drop out of schools and get back into the business but many stay to study some more.


SEE ALSO:
'Child labourers' freed in Mumbai
01 Jun 05 |  South Asia
Children swap silk work for school
21 Aug 03 |  South Asia
Child racket busted in southern India
19 Sep 02 |  South Asia


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